Monday, August 6, 2012

Good Bye Belly Fat!

Belly fat is perhaps the most loathed of locations where excess fat can be stored. When extra fat settles in your bum it is seen as desirable by many- hello “J-Lo” booty, but that is definitely not the case for a big gut.

Not only is extra belly fat unsightly, it is also very unhealthy. Fat that settles in and around your midsection is much worse for your health than fat that settles on your butt and thighs. Think of an apple shape versus a pear shape.  Those shaped like the apple, with large “beer” or “pot”  bellies, have much more visceral fat that surround important organs. Visceral fat lies deeper in the body than the fat just under the skin and releases toxins such as inflammatory compounds and hormones. Aging, being sedentary, and a poor diet can all contribute to more belly fat.

Those with a high waist circumference greater than 40 inches in men and 35 inches in women (visualize the equator going ‘round the Earth) have a high risk of type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, hypertension, heart disease, cancer and early death. According to a 2008 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, a large waist circumference nearly doubles the risk of dying early, even when body mass index (BMI) is normal. So, even “skinny” people are at risk if they have a big waist.  Genetics do play a large role in where we store extra fat, but it doesn’t mean someone from a long line of “apples”-even those skinny apples, can’t take action to greatly improve their health.

Vigorous Exercise
It probably goes without saying that exercise is required to burn off belly fat, but strolling around the block probably won’t be adequate. To be effective at getting rid of the visceral fat, you need to do more intense exercise. Studies have shown that jogging is an effective way to burn belly fat (yea!), with some studies showing it to be more effective than resistance exercise alone. It simply burns more calories.

Resistance and weight training does have its place though. It is important for maintaining muscles mass as we age and gives our metabolism a boost. A newer method of training that has shown positive results in changing body composition and overall health is called “high intensity intermittent exercise”. In simple terms you do short bursts of high intensity exercise followed by lower intensity recovery periods.
Ab work can help build ab muscle but it won’t give you that coveted 6 pack if you don’t burn off the fat so it can show up.

Because a large waist significantly increases the risk of type 2 diabetes, limiting the amount of refined sugars and carbohydrates in your diet is key. Choose whole grain, whole-food sources of carbohydrates such as oatmeal, brown rice, fruits, vegetables, and beans. A 2011 study published in the journal Obesity found that diet rich in soluble fiber was effective at reducing visceral fat. Soluble fiber slows digestion and makes you feel full. Oatmeal, apples, beans, psyllium (fiber supplement), flax, and berries are a few soluble fiber-rich food sources.

Small frequent meals, starting with a healthy protein and fiber-rich breakfast, can help manage your blood sugar and provide you with a steady source of energy throughout the day.

Choose lean proteins such as chicken and turkey breast, egg whites, beans, lower fat dairy such as part-skim mozzarella, low fat Greek yogurt, low fat cottage cheese, soy, and fish, seafood, and lean cuts of beef.

Include a little healthy fat. Healthy fats include those found in fish, nuts, seeds, olives, and avocado. Nuts make a great snack and when they replace extra carbohydrates in the diet they can help improve satiety and blood sugar, thanks to their protein and fiber content.  Healthy omega 3 fats found in cold water fish have been shown to have a beneficial effect on metabolism with regular intake. Preliminary studies suggest they help suppress appetite, increase fat metabolism and energy expenditure, and reduce fat storage. (

When in doubt eat more low starch veggies such as greens, spinach, lettuces, broccoli, cauliflower, tomatoes, green beans, zucchini, summer squash, onions, mushrooms, cucumber, celery, and bell peppers. These are packed with phytonutrients, fiber, vitamins and minerals, and minimal calories! Many simply don’t eat enough.

Manage stress
Cortisol is a hormone that is released when we are stressed and chronically high levels cause more visceral fat to be stored in the abdomen.

Changing hormones
As women go through menopause, hormonal changes occur that increase the amount of visceral fat stored in the abdomen. According to a study published in the journal Obesity in 2009, it is not so much the change in estrogen, but an increase in free testosterone that is responsible for the increase in belly fat.  Hormone replacement therapy combined with exercise may help, but HRT therapy does have other health risks. Diet and exercise are ultimately the safest long term choice for managing abdominal fat.

Will you ever have a 6 pack? Maybe- and that is a fantastic goal, but if it never emerges from your midsection that’s OK too. The important thing to remember is that your ab area is a strong signal of your future health.  Pay attention to it so you can live a long and happy life!


Megan Witt, RD, LD, CLT
Registered Dietitian/Nutritionist 
MegaNutrition Works, LLC 
Certified LEAP Therapist for chronic conditions caused by food sensitivities including irritable bowel, migraine, fibromyalgia and more.


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